We talked with Max Freund, Managing Editor of Digital for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa about a host of digitally-focused topics.
1. First, tell us a little about your background and your company?
Well I guess I will start with college. I went to school for Computer Science and Journalism. I have always been interested in storytelling, but was drawn towards the route of interactive data visualizations, and helping parse complex issues into digestible, digital stories. From there I found a home with The Gazette, which I have been a member of in many different capacities for the last 6 years. The Gazette is a completely independent daily located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And as and independent property, we have a wonderful opportunity to make our own way.
2. What do you do in your role?
As the Digital Managing Editor, I like to say I have four pillars of focus: Digital content development, product management, sales integration, and business/audience management. What this means in practice is I oversee all development and product decisions we make in the digital realm from the CMS and business partners we work with, to the codebase’s actual form and structure. I also have a team of wonderful online content editors, and I strive to ensure they have the tools, products, and strategies needed to create engaging digital stories as they work with our entire reporting staff. This can be simple things like building a charting tool for quick-turn line or bar charts that interact with our analytics gathering software, or larger-scale projects like day parting strategies and site-flow for users. Throw in there some sales integration, and audience growth initiatives, and you have a pretty standard day for me around The Gazette.
3. You bridge an interesting role of product and helping with revenue, how did you learn to play between two departments that are pretty different?
It is a balance, and having sat in both spaces within this company, I feel like I can see things from multiple angles. I would adjust the question to say product sits between revenue and content. At its core, The Product is the marriage between the content that draws in a reader, and the revenue that is generated by that interaction (be it passive revenue like ad spots, or active revenue through a subscription transaction). That is “The Gazette’s” product. Having come from the journalist’s point of view originally, all of my focus was on engagement. Whether that was making a more engaging interactive, or a more viral video series, I was always focused on metrics and whether what I did engaged. When I shifted to the product space I was charged with identifying revenue generating ideas in the digital realm. I think often times people who lack a content background will see quick money in bigger, splashier, and intrusive advertisements. This creates a mindset of: Our reader can handle just one more intrusion…Just one more…Just one more. And that puts content and revenue at odds. When trying to balance, I always look for engagement engines that drive revenue. A quick example is a Hawkeye sports weekly quiz we started this year. At its core it is content, and user engagement. It even has prizes attached to it that readers can win. This is a service to our reader, and falls in the content realm. But attached to it is a sponsorship, and an initiative to grow email newsletter signups that can drive revenue. These two work together, and balance each other, and having experience in both realms I think helps me balance those decisions as they arise.
4. For not being in a metro market and having oodles of staff, you all are doing a lot of cool stuff. What are some of the projects you are most proud of?
I really think this connects back to having a belief from the very top that we need to invest in quality talent. Whether it is a reporter who has the initiative to dive deeply into an investigation series. (We had a really interesting look into the opioid crisis in Iowa). Or a developer who has dreams of building the next super web experience (I am extremely proud of the Hawkeye football data center we produced that creates a full game-report with data visualizations of every Hawkeye game since 2000, along with bar chart widgets that are embeddable in stories).
These elements come out of an inquisitive staff that is asked to create the new. My role is to aid in identifying those concepts, and building the structures, processes, and tools that allow for efficient and effective delivery of those end products. And when we can get on the same page, from reporter to editor to dev to sales, we can do some pretty cool things with a small market team.
5. When it comes to metrics, what is important to you and your company? What are you measuring and what are the trends that are interesting to you?
Well in my specific space, there are audience metrics and revenue metrics that are my key focus. Of course in the audience realm you care about the big 4: Sessions, Users, Page Views, and T.O.P. These overall are a fine benchmark for general health of an audience, but our key focus is on truly segmenting those users into their appropriate buckets. When looking macro, a viral story that blows up and hits thousands of people who have no relationship with The Gazette will spike your page views and users, but will gut your T.O.P. and repeat sessions per user. When looking macro, you lose that level of analysis and might see the drop in T.O.P. and freak out, rather than understanding that was caused by an anomaly. We are working to look at our audience in tighter groups: The loyalist (people who visit multiple times a week), our direct brand engager (individuals likely in Iowa, who visit primarily via direct), etc. When we narrow our audience to segments that cut out a lot of the randomness that comes with news, we are able to focus in on trends, such as repeats in a month, and allow us to test initiatives with more measurable data.
For The Gazette on the revenue metrics, we care about a variety of revenue streams. Subscriptions, 3rd party monetization, locally sold advertisement, programmatic display, etc etc. There is no shortage of revenue drivers if you have audience. What matters is balancing the true value that revenue stream generates, and how it effects your audience’s experience, and likelihood to engage again. I believe if you don’t look at the two numbers in tandem, and understand how they effect each other, you are likely going to take a pretty bad misstep somewhere along the way.
6. What’s your take on social? Friend? Foe? Both?
Social is tough. No publisher can deny the impact the major social brands have made on their traffic and engagement. We all love looking at our monthly analytics reports and seeing thousands, if not millions of page views delivered “for free” from Facebook or Twitter. But at their core, these social channels are businesses. And what is good for the media company one month, might not be good for Facebook, and ultimately, Facebook controls that relationship. So my perspective is a little bit along the lines of “both”. We need to always be asking ourselves: How do we create valuable content that the social audience (which is there and isn’t going anywhere) wants to engage with?
But at the same time. How do we strive to convert those infrequent social engagers, to more concrete direct engagers? Is that giving them a reason to become an email subscriber? Or find an additional way to push them some daily alerts either through Facebook Messenger, or similar technology? As long as you approach your social strategy from both sides, I think you can find great opportunities to reap the benefits, while being prepared to adapt as the social channels change the ways you are able to interact with their audiences.
7. Many think of data in the newsroom as something that helps you make decisions about what you cover. Do you all think of it in a wider way than that?
I think we need to always be open to using analytics as a way to analyze what we cover. There is a benefit to understanding your readers’ interests by topic, time of day of consumption, etc. But we also need to use data to understand the “how” we cover something. A story has thousands of page views! Hurray! Does that prove that the “what” we cover was successful? Maybe. But can we go deeper.
Did we notice on two stories, two different topics, but fairly equal in page views that one had a significantly higher T.O.P. and lower bounce rate than the other story with similar page views? “How” was our coverage different between those two stories? Was there an interactive that kept individuals on one of those stories for a longer period of time and drove our T.O.P. incrementally higher? Or did we do a good job of link curation, and built a logical next step for the reader that wants to learn more, lowering the bounce rate on that page. If we go beyond the surface of just “what” does well, but try to answer the “how” is it successful? We can identify content strategies, and storytelling initiatives that can aid in our properties’ overall stickiness for a reader. Because ultimately, that is the #1 challenge. Every news organization in the world is competing in the digital space with cat videos, online shopping, and Youtube videos of cute babies. That’s a hard battle to win. Understanding how we keep readers around, and keep them coming back, we can double and triple down on those strategies, and have a chance to make an impact.